Yasmine is the third in our trilogy of stories from this past Yom Kippur, where we heard of three very different paths that members have taken toward both Judaism and Mount Zion. Her story was equally heartfelt, but perhaps ranked highest on the ‘tears of joy’ meter.
She is a clinical psychologist with a specialty in child psychology. According to her online bio, her treatment approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy (assessing and changing environmental triggers and thoughts contributing to a problem), play therapy (using play as a medium for therapy), and family systems therapy (assessing and changing family dynamics).
Yasmine’s own family consists of her husband (and active Temple member) David, who works at Boston Scientific, together with twin children (boy/girl), who just this year became b’nei mitzvah, and three cats. She was born in India and grew up in Queens, NY, she loves to travel to small towns in far away places, and she concocts recipes – each topics that we will delve into in greater detail below.
I was born in India, northern India while my dad was in the Indian army. But I was raised in southern India, in the state of Tamil Nadu. We moved to New York when I was 6½ , and I started first grade there.
What prompted the move?
The American dream! My parents wanted more opportunities and a better life for their children. Both my parents came from humble beginnings. My father was the first one in his family to receive a college degree or beyond.
My dad is a physician, and when we moved he used to be an ENT physician, and he wanted to go into cardiothoracic surgery. You have to take various exams, including one to make sure that your language skills are good enough. Then he took some different boards and re-specialized here, and started his residency all over again.
And my mother has started and runs a charitable organization, which distributes things like medical supplies and computers, for kids with disabilities in India.
Do you get back to India?
I still have family over there, and we get back there every two to three years, to make sure that our kids have connections with India, and with my family back there.
What do you remember of your early years there?
So much! Wow! Probably more so the family on my dad’s side because we would visit there, and he has three younger brothers and three younger sisters. My aunts were probably about 8 to 10 years older than me, and they would always play with me, and I remember playing in a lake or river, and they would take me on their back. I remember the food; I have so many memories. I remember having a beautiful family there.
In reading your online bio, I notice you like to cook?
I love cooking. Everything. I love cooking either Indian, Mexican, or Middle Eastern foods, because they have flavor profiles from lots of different countries. For instance, Mexican food has cumin and other things that are found in Indian cooking, and oregano, and hints of lime and acidity. So any cuisine where you have sweet and salty and sugar and acid, is very complex and rich, and I love that.
But I also really like cooking American comfort food. Love it! Like meat loaf or a potpie or brisket. It’s very creative. I don’t cook by recipes. I read recipes just for the knowledge, but then I go into the kitchen and just concoct things.
I also read that you like visiting small towns. Can you talk about that?
If I were to travel to England, traveling to London tells you very little about the people. But if you go to the smaller towns you can really see what the true character of the people there are. Going to Manhattan for instance does not show you the true character of the people from New York. That’s what I like about small towns.
We just got back from New York, so where would you have recommended we go?
When people go to New York, I might recommend that they go to Flushing. Which is not a small town, it’s outside of Manhattan, in Queens, but it’s the immigrant port. So the main street in Flushing will have signs of whatever it is the dominant immigrant group might be. When I was back recently, the signs were in Korean. And I love the vegetable markets there. You can see true cross sections of the place when you get out of Manhattan.
I know that you are an avid tennis player, isn’t Flushing also where the tennis tournament is?
It definitely is! In the apartment building that we first moved to in Flushing we were on the thirteenth floor, but you know they don’t have 13th floors, so it was called the 14th floor. And when we looked out from our balcony you could see both the globe from the 1965 World’s Fair, and Flushing Meadows, which is the site of the US open.
And do you have a favorite small town in India as well?
That would be where my dad grew up. Its called Koothanallur, in Tamil Nadu. It’s a predominately Muslim town and it sounds small, and they call them villages, but it is actually quite large.
Yet everyone is somehow related to each other, and they are just really good people. Kind, loving people. And if I were to go there, everyone would seem to know me. Because they know me, or they know my family. So they feed you – like all the time – and its really good food.
So do you think your father achieved the American dream? Or did he ever regret leaving Koothanallur?
Oh gosh no! He is about to retire, and he’s worked at this community hospital for about 40 years. This is a great country to live in. I know there are issues, but there are so many issues that seem insurmountable in other parts of the world. This is a great place to be.
With that, we recall Yasmine’s words at Yom Kippur. By the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
So let me tell you a little bit about my lovely Catholic Muslim East Indian American family … and how I became a Jew.
My mother is Catholic. My father is Muslim. My mom converted to Islam so that they could be married. They are loving, supportive, generous people and wonderful parents. I was born in India and spent the first 6 years of my life there. On October 4, 1974, we emigrated to Queens, NY. The immigrant story is one of trying to find oneself culturally, and in my case, also spiritually. The immigrant and the convert are both essentially seekers. They question not just ‘what’ the customs are, but ‘why’ we are performing these customs. It’s a search not just for understanding the landscape, but also yourself.
So, let me tell you about my family’s religious observances, which are likely typical, and my reactions to them, which are likely not so typical.
In the Muslim religion, the month of Ramadan is a holy month, observed by fasting from sunrise to sunset each day. At the end of that month, you celebrate with a feast on Eid. My family celebrated Eid by feasting on many delicious Indian foods. We did not, however, fast. I really wanted to fast! My family celebrated Christmas with presents and a Christmas tree. We did not, however, talk about the spiritual meaning of the day. I really wanted to talk about the spiritual meaning of the day.
In high school, my search for deeper meaning continued. I went to the Brooklyn Tabernacle and heard people speak in tongues. I went to Catholic services and heard sermons in Latin. I went to a Hindu temple, Bahai temple, and met with Hari Krishna. I must say, I felt preached at in all these venues. I also attended a church of some alternative kind, I think it was in the east village maybe. It’s a little foggy. There was a woman in a red cocktail dress, sitting on top of a piano, singing “If My Friends Could See Me Now”. Look, this just made me more confused than I already was in my late adolescence.
At age 18, I went to college at the University of Michigan. I met a guy there, Dave Knapp. He took me on a hot date to a Chavurah at the Hillel. There were about 15 of us sitting in a circle on the floor. Someone was playing the guitar. Someone else led us through prayer and reflection. To this day, I still remember that meditation. It was about a walk through a forest. Coming up on an old stone bath house. Walking in. Taking off your shoes and you socks. Dipping your toe in the cool water, feeling connected to those that came before you. It was my first Truly Religious Experience.
In the time since that Chavurah, Dave and I got married, we had twins, and I continued my journey into Judaism. I attended Passover seders, lit candles on Chanukah, made sure we had challah and candles at our Shabbat dinner. We sent our kids, Daniel and Amina, to Hebrew school and Sunday school. And guess what? On Yom Kippur, I got to fast ! (Fist pump)
In retrospect, over the past 22 years, I think I was practicing judaism with a lowercase j. I was engaged in rituals, but not really searching anymore.
About two years ago, I observed Yom Kippur in synagogue for the first time. I had always fasted alone. In the afternoon service, three speakers spoke about the meaning of tallit. One said that it was a special garment that separated Shabbat from the rest of the week. Someone else said that it was like a cloak of spirituality that made them feel closer to God. The third said that it was a sign of religious orthodoxy and that in the spirit of Reform Judaism and choice, they chose not to wear a tallit. Man, I was tingling during that service (and not just cause I was fasting). I really loved this conversation.
Shortly thereafter, I started going to Torah study upstairs, on Saturday mornings. I remember a passage from Shemot, Exodus 28 about priestly garments. Here’s what it said:
And these are the garments that they shall make: a choshen, an ephod, a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap, and a sash… they shall make the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen, the work of a master weaver.”
You might be thinking to yourself, ‘So what? What’s to discuss about such pedantic details about clothing? How is this interesting?’ Let me tell you, in Torah study, we dug deep. We asked, Why blue? Well – it turns out that blue was not very easy to make in those days. So, it was extra special. Why does it matter what the priests wore? How should our rabbis dress? Why not wear jeans to services? Some people argued that it was a classist decision to dress up. Others argued that setting aside special clothing for services made them feel more spiritual.
So many ‘whys’ and the answers didn’t matter. It was simply the analysis, wrestling with meaning and words. I was hooked! The conversation made me feel alive, more … ME. I realized then that I had finally found what I was looking for. And you know what, it had been right in front of my eyes for a couple of decades. It had been mine for the taking.
I then made a decision. One, I am going to convert. I’m signing up. Second, as soon as I convert – I am getting a tallit!
Before I converted, I see now that I was walking around with a packet of Judaism in my pocket. After, it was as though I had taken the packet out, unfolded it and draped it around my shoulders, like a cloak of spirituality- like a Tallit. On October 29, 2014, which by the way, was 40 years after I landed at JFK from India, I went to the mikvah in Highland Park and had a truly religious experience. Shortly thereafter, my husband Dave got me a beautiful tallit with little purple flowers on it from Israel. It is the tallit that I am wearing today. Now, as I continue my search for deeper meaning, I am in the company of a people who are also searchers. Like me!